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A version of this story first appeared in the June 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Opening in the wake of the arrest of 10 FIFA officials under investigation by the FBI for corruption, bribery and money-laundering, United Passions, the propaganda-filled film about the world soccer body FIFA, was an instant — and epic — flop. It grossed just $918 in the U.S. during the June 6 weekend. But even before the scandal broke, the $30 million movie was plagued by a battle between FIFA, which put up 80 percent of the budget, and the film’s director and stars, including Tim Roth — who plays Sepp Blatter, the longtime FIFA president who announced June 2 that he will resign.
In his first interview since the disastrous U.S. opening, French director Frederic Auburtin tells THR he tried to strike a balance between “a Disney propaganda film [and] a Costa-Gavras/Michael Moore movie,” but the project ultimately tipped in FIFA’s favor. “Now I’m seen as bad as the guy who brought AIDS to Africa or the guy who caused the financial crisis. My name is all over [this mess],” the director laments, “and apparently I am a propaganda guy making films for corrupt people.”
Roth declined repeated requests to speak about United Passions, but in a stunning confession in May, before the scandal broke, to German newspaper Die Welt, the actor lamented playing Blatter. “Yeah, I apologize I didn’t question the director, I didn’t question the script,” he said. “This is a role that will have my father turning in his grave.”
Roth admitted he took the job for the money, saying it helped him out of a “financial hole,” adding, “but you know what? The hole FIFA has dug for itself is so deep, they’ll never get out of it.”
Roth wasn’t the only actor involved with United Passions to shun the film — he apparently hasn’t even seen it — and refuse to do any publicity. Only Gerard Depardieu bothered to show up at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, where United Passions had its world premiere on a huge outdoor screen in the Cinema de la Plage program. Sam Neill likewise skirted promotional duties for the movie, which purports to tell of the heroic efforts of FIFA presidents — including founder Jules Rimet (Depardieu), Joao Havelange (Neill) and Blatter — to turn soccer into a global sport beloved by billions and worth just as much to FIFA and its sponsors.
According to Auburtin, the film’s problems began back in 2012, when Louisa Maurin, a first-time producer, pitched FIFA the idea of making a film about the organization’s history. Maurin joined forces with veteran French producer Christine Gozlan and attached Depardieu. Depardieu, in turn, brought in his friend Auburtin, who had directed the actor in 2006’s Paris, je t’aime.
From the start, however, Auburtin and co-screenwriter Jean-Paul Delfino were under the gun. FIFA wanted the film finished for release in the summer of 2014, ahead of the FIFA World Cup in Brazil. “Normally you need a year to write a script. We had four months,” Auburtin says.
Initially, Auburtin says he worked with Roth to “introduce a subtext” of corruption to the largely pro-FIFA script. That could explain some of the film’s lines, including: “Blatter, he’s apparently good at finding money.”
Auburtin also points to the end of the film, in which Roth as Blatter is shown opening an envelope announcing South Africa as the host country for the 2010 World Cup. “You the audience should be clever enough to make your own conclusions [about how Blatter reacts]. We know now [FIFA] cheated because Morocco won the bidding, and apparently when Blatter opened the envelope, he changed it to South Africa.”
In fact, says Auburtin, the first treatment had a narrative thread involving an investigator looking into alleged FIFA corruption. “The image we had, … and of course is very ironic today, was these flashing lights and sirens arriving at FIFA headquarters early in the morning.”
At first, FIFA was mostly hands-off, the director says. But when the production ran out of money during shooting in 2013, FIFA stepped in and doubled its commitment — from about $13 million to $26 million.
“In my mind, it was now like making a film for a major studio — the guy who has the power is the guy who is paying,” says Auburtin. “You have to be loyal to the guy who is paying for it, unless you’re Jean-Luc Goddard or Quentin Tarantino, people who are very very powerful and they can say f— off to everybody.”
Filming concluded in September 2013. FIFA originally had wanted to call the movie Men of Legend. “Can you imagine such a title? It’s nonsense,” the director says. “Then The Dreammakers. Come on.” Auburtin successfully fought for the United Passions title, an ironic play on the fact that FIFA has more member states than the United Nations. But after the final edit, FIFA made changes, he says. By the time of the film’s debut at Cannes, it was “totally pro-FIFA,” says Auburtin.
Despite worldwide interest in soccer, only a handful of countries stepped up to claim theatrical rights. Its best performance has been in Russia, where United Passions earned a meager $158,000. It premiered on TV in Italy (to poor ratings) last July and went straight to DVD in France. The film hasn’t sold at all to several major territories with huge soccer fan bases, including the U.K., Germany and Brazil. After the movie’s poor U.S. performance, distributor Screen Media Films pulled it from theaters.
“I would have liked a marketing plan,” Auburtin says. “For a film of [this budget] the budget for marketing should be around €5 million, €10 million [$5.6 million–$11.2 million], but it was nothing. Not even €20,000 [$22,000].” The director says he didn’t even know the film had a U.S. release until a journalist told him a month ago. Insiders question whether Screen Media, which declined to comment, was hoping the controversy would spark interest. If so, the ploy didn’t work.
Blatter, according to sources near FIFA, was “very touched and satisfied” with United Passions but, after the film failed to sell, the organization appeared to abandon it. Auburtin, though, says he’s interested in making a sequel focusing on FIFA’s current scandals. He’d have enough material, he adds, to make “four seasons of a TV show … more like True Detective.” But, right now, he says he’s had enough and hopes to put United Passions, and FIFA, behind him.
“I’m a victim of the game. It’s a disaster, but that is not the point, I accepted the job,” Auburtin concedes. “[But] I was not paid to be the Che Guevara of the sports business. … Please don’t make me the guy responsible for the fact that FIFA is rotten.”
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